Ahmed, Adel, Omar and Mohamed >Photo courtesy of Oscar Bonilla
A Curious Experiment in Uruguay
MONTEVIDEO — In the top floor of a no-frills residential and commercial building, Abu Wa’el Jihad Ahmed Mustafa Dhiab, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee from Syria, greets me into his apartment. His new dwelling is so small I have to skirt around the edge of his bed, which takes up the lion’s share of the space that he calls home these days.
The media had described him as “difficult” and mercurial, but he is forthcoming and kind to me. Jihad, 44, welcomes me with a bowl of fruit and brings me some hot tea from his kitchen, even though he walks on crutches, in evident pain as he raises his tall, bony body onto them to fetch me a cup. His right side frequently goes cold, a problem that’s yet to be properly diagnosed, which he guesses is due to neurological damage.
After a two-hour interview, I turn off my recorder and thank him for speaking with me. I say I imagine it must be difficult to invite an American reporter into his home.
He waves off the comment as though he thinks it is inappropriate to bring up in our setting. In every country, he says, there are good people and there are bad people.
Jihad is one of six men — four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian — who were transferred to Uruguay in 2014, part of a deal with the U.S. government to get the six out of the island prison camp by relocating them to this tiny South American nation.
The story of what brought Jihad to this breadbox of an apartment after 12 years a captive in Guantánamo is one that involves a most incongruous mash-up of political actors and motivations. It’s also an experiment in the type of detainee transfers that U.S. President Barack Obama must repeat if he is to put in motion the closure of the notorious prison camp before he leaves office in a year.
The six men had been recommended for release by a Guantánamo task force since 2010. By the time they arrived in Uruguay, it was with a three-sentence letter from an Obama envoy that “there is no information” that the six “were involved in conducting or facilitating terrorist activities against the United States or its partners or allies.”
For the six, most of whom don’t expect to see their home countries ever again, relocation to Uruguay means an unexpected life in one of South America’s more curious corners.
Welcome to Uruguay
The Uruguayan capital city of Montevideo is one of muted colors and sounds, where the gray-brown waters of the Río de la Plata lap the boardwalk of La Rambla. Even in the city’s rush hours, drivers don’t feel the need to honk. The society is in many ways a homogeneous one, nominally Catholic or professedly agnostic. About 90% of the small country’s population identifies as white, and they are largely descendants of Western European immigrants from Italy, Spain and France. A sense of kinship seems to be reflected in the way that its citizens affectionately refer to tranquil Uruguay as a “big village.”
In December 2014, José “Pepe” Mujica, the political prisoner turned socialist president, was tidying up the end of an emblematic term that had turned the Volkswagen Bug-driving octogenarian into a regional, if not international, icon for progressive politics. Under his presidency, Uruguay legalized gay marriage, marijuana and abortion — the latter a taboo in a continent that remains predominantly Catholic — and accepted Obama’s request to take on former Guantánamo detainees whose home countries were deemed too unsafe or unsuitable to receive them back. Not just one or two of them, like many stalwart U.S. allies in Europe had done, but a half dozen for the South American nation whose population is less than half of New York City’s.
One lawyer printed out Uruguay’s Wikipedia page for his Guantánamo client and another sent a copy of the New York Times’ article “36 Hours in Montevideo. The men came shackled and hooded in a U.S. military transport plane, still in their orange Guantánamo jumpers, and were soon greeted with much public fanfare by Mujica. However, Uruguay’s cooperation with the U.S. was different from the cooperation of other U.S. allies: Mujica went along with the agreement while still affirming his repudiation of the U.S.-led war on terror. He told the men that he, too, had been a political prisoner.
Mujica had spent 14 years in prison for his role in an armed leftist insurgency; much of that time he lived in a hole in the ground in solitary confinement. He got back to work after leaving prison, the bustling Mujica told the men. Abd al Hadi Omar Mahmoud Faraj, a pink-cheeked, 34-year-old Syrian who has a sanguine ability to be forward-looking, told me later that he gave Mujica this reply: “Yes, but you were in your country, with your language and your friends.”
An Unusual Experiment
It seems that neither the U.S. nor Uruguay knew quite what they were getting themselves into with this experiment, nor has either country gotten the result they hoped for.
The men’s first few months in the country were ones of frequent media visits to a house that they shared on a central Montevideo street that was provided by a labor union. The men waved a Uruguayan flag and their orange Guantánamo pants from their new home for onlookers. Uruguayans snapped their photos as the men walked through the streets to do simple things like grocery shopping.
But six men, one cramped house and a stream of curious outsiders proved fractious for them; several moved to a hotel. Furthermore, many Uruguayans, Mujica included, began to ask: When will they get a job?
When Mujica visited the men in February 2015, he told them they needed to learn Spanish and start working. Mujica later told the media that “by their hands,” he could tell that they were “from the middle class” or higher. In contrast, Uruguay’s early immigration waves of Europeans, he said, “were hardened people, sons of penury, who got here and immediately latched on to whatever they could find. Given that they were primitive, they were strong and didn’t need anything other than their personal force to deal with their nostalgia and sought ways forth however they could,” he said.
He added that if the Guantánamo detainees “had been humbler people, from the desert, from the poor classes, they would certainly be more primitive and stronger. But they are not. They are young people from this day and age, in love with the Internet.”
Christian Mirza, an Egyptian-born social worker who is a government liaison for the men, offered another view. He said the outsized attention given to this six by Uruguay’s political class was not matched by an equally meticulous planning about what social integration would look like. He also said that Uruguayans, proud of their work ethic, may not have grasped the way that the men’s 12 years in Guantánamo were ones so deprived of autonomy that they had to ask to use the toilet.
He recalled a comment made to him by a Uruguayan journalist: “Even though the men don’t speak Spanish, they can work. Because look at deaf and mute people, these people can work!” Mirza said that he was so dumbfounded by the comment that he looked at the journalist “almost cross-eyed.”
“If they didn’t have autonomy to decide even their basic physical movements, how can you demand that they immediately integrate into the labor market here?” Mirza said.
He also noted the absence of an organized reintegration program. The Uruguayan government provides the men with food assistance, but it has not offered any sort of re-entry program to connect the men with job opportunities or professional training. It’s as if the men were expected to go from torture victims to bootstrappers in a “country where they don’t even know the language, where they don’t know the culture,” Mirza contended.
Frustrations mounting, the men turned their ire toward a party that had been quiet up until then: the U.S.
In Montevideo, a town of little fuss, the men’s form of protest — three weeks in which four of the them set up sporty camping tents in front of the high concrete walls that surround the U.S. Embassy’s gray bunker of a headquarters — made for an attention-grabbing oddity among the modest structures of Montevideo. The men demanded financial compensation from the U.S. for their 12 years in detention without charge. The U.S. did not engage the men publicly, and told Mirza privately that it had no duty to pay the men since they were detained under the laws of war.
At the end of the protest in May 2015, it was a Uruguayan nongovernmental organization that offered to sponsor the men for two years with a monthly stipend of about $500 a month and individual housing.
Another byproduct of the protest was in gaining a level of public visibility that the men had never enjoyed in their time as captives, when journalists were prohibited from speaking with them. (The only reporter to have ever been among the inmates inside Guantánamo was a detainee himself. Sami al-Hajj was a Sudanese cameraman for Al Jazeera who was arrested in Pakistan and held for six years in the prison camp.)
During the protest, Uruguayans brought the men tea and snacks. Women visited them as well, and soon after the protest, two of the men married Uruguayan converts to Islam.
Jihad said he did not ask for “money in my hand” from the U.S., but that if the country wanted to stem animosity from the men whom it had imprisoned under no charge for more than a decade, the least it could do was provide him with a house large enough to host his wife and family from Syria.
“America claims it’s fighting terrorism, but it’s producing terrorism with its policy,” he said. “It wronged people for 13 years in the prison of Guantánamo for no reason and in the end, it just abandons them just like one would throw away bones after eating the meat.”
America’s Relocation Strategy
How the men are faring in their new home — and what their new home makes of them — is a highly non-traditional experiment in relocation that has implications critical for the future of the notorious prison camp.
Seven years ago, Obama signed an executive order to close Guantánamo within a year. Now, in his final year in office, the president’s strategy seems to be to slowly siphon off dozens of its remaining prisoners, down to the 59 detainees whom the government does not plan to free and whom the Pentagon has deemed ineligible for international resettlement. (It is worthy to note that only one Guantánamo detainee has ever been transferred to the U.S. for prosecution. More than half of current prisoners are being held indefinitely under no charge at all.)
The prison that once held 780 captives now has a population of 91, with an estimated 2,000 people in support staff for them. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, argued in an op-ed in November 2015 that there was no justification to hold Guantánamo inmates at a cost of $2.5 million per prisoner each year when that price tag is 30 times lower at federal Supermax facilities. Other estimates have put the Guantánamo per-detainee price tag as high as $4.4 million per year.
“Federal prisons already hold Al Qaeda terrorists like Zacarias Moussaoui, the ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid and the ‘underwear bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab,” she wrote, and have no history of escapes.
In February, Obama sent a detailed proposal to Congress to speed up foreign relocation of detainees, accelerate review boards that determine whether a captive continues to pose any risk at all and improvements to the turgid-paced military commissions to try Guantánamo detainees. The proposal also asserted that the Department of Defense had identified numerous U.S. prison facilities that would be appropriate to receive the remaining captives, though it did not pinpoint a specific unit.
A Guantánamo with only 59 prisoners, Obama’s presumed end goal through third-country transfers, could cement the prison’s status as a boondoggle and push a recalcitrant Congress to reconsider restrictions that bar transferring detainees to the United States. (In recent weeks, 10 detainees were transferred to Oman and one each to Bosnia and Montenegro, bringing the total prison population to 91. A State Department official announced that the 34 remaining prisoners who have been recommended for transfer may be moved by the middle of this year.)
Arranging new homes for the detainees has been a tough, complex process. One huge complicating factor — and why Uruguay’s experiment is so key — is the issue of national origin. Yemeni detainees constitute the majority of those still held in Guantánamo. A Saudi-led, U.S.-supported bombing campaign has plunged Yemen into a humanitarian crisis; these airstrikes target rebels who upended Yemen’s central government in March 2015, driving the country into an ongoing civil war.
Finding third countries to host these men is the key that the U.S. needs to close the detention center. Although the Obama administration has secured deals with some nations to transfer detainees to their soil, negotiations have been slowed by the question those countries raise: If Bermuda, Palau, Portugal and Uruguay accept Guantánamo detainees as free men among their population, why won’t the U.S. allow those men into their own territory, even in another prison?
So far, 56 nations have agreed accept former prisoners. Underscoring the ad-hoc way the administration has looked for new homes for the detainees, two Yemenis were transferred to Ghana in January of this year.
“I think it illustrates the kind of ends of the Earth that the Obama administration is going to, to find places for these cleared men to go so they can get out of Gitmo before Obama gets out of the White House,” Miami Herald journalist Carol Rosenberg told Public Radio International’s “The World.” The veteran correspondent, however, still doubted that Obama could reach his goal of closing the prison camp in his final year in office.
Uruguay has been a deep contrast to most of the nations that stepped up to the plate. Mujica’s unique, vocal solidarity with the men was a strong counterbalance to the otherwise randomness of the middle-income country in the men’s imaginations. The only comparable experience has been in El Salvador, also a small Latin American nation. Two Uighur detainees, an ethnic minority from China, were released to the country in 2012. El Salvador, in the midst of a drug gang war that has sent its homicide rate soaring to one of the world’s highest, didn’t seem a fit for those men. A year and a half later, they were nowhere to be found, rumored to have fled to Turkey.
Adapting To a New Life
With the small support from the Uruguayan NGO, the six men have settled into a quiet stretch of their new lives. Not unlike many expats around the world, they flit in and out of the foreign society in which they find themselves and spend large parts of their days online, engaging with a world more familiar back home.
Adel Bin Mohammed Ouerghi, 50, let me in to his bright top-floor apartment even though I came unannounced. Early U.S. documentation called him a “senior explosive trainer for al-Qaida,” a dramatic accusation the U.S. seems to have dropped by the time it sent its innocuous letter to the Uruguayans.
The petite Tunisian chatted up a storm in a mixture of Italian and Spanish. He and Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, 38, who bashfully spoke a few words in Spanish, declined to give interviews on the record. They instead gleefully showed videos of belly dancers from a festival celebrating migrant culture that they had attended at a local museum. Ouerghi showed pictures on his phone of packages of clothing his mother had mailed him.
“I am surprised by how they have been able to adapt and the way they have had the capacity to communicate and feel adjusted in Uruguay,” said Mirza, the social worker. “There is a certain facility — no, not that, a capacity — that they have, after all that’s happened to them, not to share everything in Uruguay, but to allow themselves to be permeated by the culture of Uruguay. And to maintain connections with people in Uruguay and not be isolated.”
What most speaks to that adaptation is the men’s seeming ease for romance: In total, four of them had gotten married barely half a year into their new South American home. Mohammed Taha Matan, the Palestinian detainee, lives the quietest life of them all, reportedly wed to a Uruguayan psychologist and eschewing public life. His family visited him from Ramallah, which Mirza called “a very beautiful encounter.”
Ali Husein Shaaban, one of the Syrian detainees, also married around this time; other than his protest in front of the U.S. Embassy, he also has eschewed public life.
Two of those relationships, however, took dramatic downturns shortly after they began. Four months into Ouerghi’s marriage, his young pregnant wife accused him of threatening her with a kitchen knife and asked for divorce. A judge declined to press charges against him, and the couple lives separately now.
Faraj, the young Syrian, married Fátima Posadas, a Spanish teacher, at the Iranian embassy in Montevideo. But by January, Faraj, too, had been arrested on domestic violence charges made by Posadas. He was released and received a restraining order. Forensic exams related to the charges were ongoing at press time.
Other forms of heartache also accompanied the men’s release from Guantánamo. For the four Syrians in the group, when they emerged into a free world, they saw that their countrymen and women were caught up in one of the world’s most dire armed conflicts. Faraj, who spends long periods of time fondly looking at photos on Whatsapp of children in his family whom he’s never met, said he would move his family from the besieged city of Homs to Uruguay if he had the financial position to do so.
But for no one in the group is that anguish more present than for Jihad. Before he left Guantánamo, he was told that his family would be waiting for him in Uruguay, but they were not there when he arrived. When I first spoke with him in October, 15 members of his family had been killed in the Syrian civil war, including his son. Jihad had last seen his boy when he was 3. Jihad was cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2006 but only transferred in 2014. His son died the year before.
By the time I followed up with him in November, the number of family members killed had risen to 18.
The Path to Guantánamo
For the Uruguay six, most ended up at Guantánamo after being handed over by Afghan or Pakistani middlemen for what many believe were bounty payments. While the U.S. cast wide suspicion on Arabs in Afghanistan or Pakistan as likely al-Qaida affiliates, the detainees gave a series of reasons for having moved to the region. David Marshall, a Seattle lawyer for Ahjam, has said that his client moved to Afghanistan after a friend’s death in Syria caused him to think about eternity and led him to search for a society more focused on faith.
“My client was a young man in his early twenties in Syria and essentially went to Afghanistan as a sort of coming-of-age spiritual adventure, not unlike people of my generation who went to San Francisco in 1968 with flowers in their hair,” Marshall told a Washington radio station. “He stayed until the bombs started raining down from American planes, and fled.”
Jihad was a truck driver in Syria, but after seeing an opportunity to expand his trade in Afghanistan, moved to Kabul with his family in 2000. The family headed to Pakistan for safety after a U.S. bombing campaign hit the city shortly after 9/11. There, Pakistani authorities captured Jihad for suspected terrorist activity in 2002, he was transferred to U.S. custody and eventually sent to Guantánamo that year.
He has gained name recognition among Guantánamo-watchers for his long-standing hunger strike, litigation to stop his painful force-feeding, and successful lawsuit to gain access to videos of the procedure. Force-feeding involves a “forcible cell extraction” team in riot gear strapping hunger strikers into five-point restraint chairs. Tubes are inserted into the detainee’s nose that will feed Ensure to him.
A coalition of news organizations sued the U.S. in 2014 for access to videos of the procedure involved in Jihad’s lawsuit and won. The U.S. government has appealed the decision. In January, on the anniversary of the prison camp’s opening, Jihad wore an orange jumpsuit and reenacted the force-feeding in a protest in front of the U.S. Embassy.
The life of the man whom the U.S. once called “high threat” to “the U.S., its interests and allies” is one now largely tied to his home, hospital visits, crutches and computer. He is largely despondent as he waits for a future with his family that seems to never come and is profoundly troubled by his torturous past and poor health.
“In Uruguay there is this idea that work resolves everything,” Mirza had told me. “And it doesn’t resolve nothing, it resolves a part, but not everything.”
Experience at Guantánamo
When I visited his apartment, Jihad and I spoke through an unusual translator: Moammar Badawi Dokhan, also a Syrian who was held at Guantánamo and transferred to Portugal in 2009. (Read his story on why he and other former detainees have been reticent to talk to the media about his experience at Guantánamo.) Connected to us over Skype, Dokhan’s Portuguese was lively and conversational after five years in the country. He peppered his vocabulary with key words in English: “Hunger strike.” “Government of USA.” “Secret room.” (I later understood that the latter refers to solitary confinement.)
Some detainees, like Mauritanian Mohamedou Ould Slahi, would come to master the language of their captors; he ended up writing a New York Times bestseller, Guantánamo Diary. In fact, Jihad speaks English well, and several times turned to speak to me one-on-one. I had been told, however, that he carried out something of a language strike in Guantánamo, refusing to speak to the prison staff unless he needed something like water. I asked him why he did that.
“I don’t like to speak with any guards. How [can I] speak with somebody who tortures me?” Jihad replied.
He spent, by his account, about 11 years in solitary confinement, and before that, his last contact with the modern world was 2001 Afghanistan. Even so, after his release, he quickly developed an acute political awareness, both with the popular narratives surrounding the decade-and-a-half war on terror and with the points raised by its dissenters. He spoke to me about innocent victims of drone strikes, the emphasis in the West on violence committed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State group even as polls among Syrian refugees largely show they are fleeing violence from the regime of Bashar Assad, and the double standard used to label an attack an act of “terrorism” or the result of mental illness, based on a perpetrator’s religion.
Jihad brought up the example of a Virginia shooter who killed two reporters live on television in August: “He [is] crazy because he [is] from United States. Or Christian, or Jewish or something. Why [is] only the Muslim [called a] terrorist?”
But alongside Jihad’s political acuity, there was a certain fuzziness to his recollections about Guantánamo, as though he were still groggy after waking up from a terrible dream.
He interjected during a conversation between the three of us about hunger striking. “About the issue of torture,” he said, “don’t forget the black magic spells.”
“Magic?” I asked.
“They use everything at Guantánamo,” Jihad continued. “All the individuals who were in charge of the camps in Guantánamo were psychiatrists and, at the same time, sorcerers.” In Islam, performing magic is one of seven major sins.
Dokhan piped in with some examples. He said their food had been tainted by black magic, which he said detainees could spot through suspicious hairs in their meals. Dokhan elaborated that he sensed that his clothing and his mattress had been cursed. Spells were cast all so that detainees would “go crazy,” he said. “I know you have never seen magic,” he said as I asked for how the spells worked. “But now you know.”
The one bright spot in Jihad’s time in Uruguay seems to be his budding friendship with an unexpected peer. In June, Montevideo’s Museo de la Memória organized an event for former leftist political prisoners to meet the Guantánamo detainees. It was there that Jorge Voituret, who spent 12 years in Montevideo’s sardonically named Freedom Jail, met Jihad.
He seemed to be a rare person in Uruguay who had a grasp on Jihad’s experience, and understood that there were limits to what he could comprehend about the life of an Arab detainee sent to Guantánamo.
Voituret accompanies Jihad for doctor’s visits and has taken him for short day trips, like to the grassy Parque Rodó in Montevideo and driving through the hilly Cerro de Montevideo.
Voituret recounted the common ground he had with Jihad in the sonorous Spanish used by Uruguayans that almost seemed inappropriate for the harsh subject matter: The waterboarding (he called it submarino in Spanish), the de-individualization through numbering of inmates, the medications from psychologists that seemed to make them more, not less, depressed.
Voituret recalled listening to a clandestine radio a sympathetic member of the military brought to them in the Freedom Jail. He and his fellow inmates would quietly memorize and recount the news that made it into the prison, like that of the Nicaraguan revolution. They also wrote messages in tiny letters on cigarette papers to pass among themselves. These practices, Voituret said, were reminiscent to Jihad of the way he had memorized the Quran.
“This was similar,” he said, “the resources prisoners have to save and hold on to what they wanted.”
If Jihad, unable to reunite with his family, is stuck in a sense of impotency as a year passed, Faraj, 10 years his junior, is a vivid contrast. At the time I met with him, he seemed to have a surprising levity and sense of ease in his new home.
“He takes the bus, he goes all around, he goes to the supermarket and looks like just another guy,” his then-fiancé told Montevideo Portal in an interview shortly before their wedding. “No one picks him out as a guy from Guantánamo.”
The day I met with him, Faraj had crossed the city on a bus from the scruffy outskirts where he lived simply because he heard a friendly voice in Arabic on the phone. Reda Najjar, who came to Montevideo as a 19-year-old Lebanese newlywed 50 years ago, had prepared a snack of zatar — mixed spices and olive oil with crackers for dipping — in her dim home and invited him over for an interview she would translate.
Faraj shook my hand and gave me a kiss on the cheek, like a Uruguayan would. In Guantánamo, he had been shown a map so he’d know where Uruguay was. And what did he think? “I didn’t know enough to be able to feel anything,” he said.
He talked about how he’d like to work in a butcher shop, and was eager to explain why he had turned down a job he was offered at a meat-packing plant outside Montevideo. “I just want to grow with people around, not be corralled like I’m in Guantánamo again,” he said.
His boyish eagerness to be in his new home seemed to be the counter-story to the 12 years of his young adulthood spent incommunicado and isolated, branded as a danger to society.
It pointed to something else: that what may be most extraordinary about this transfer to Uruguay is how men who were once called “the worst of the worst” by their U.S. captors have become a fixture in this small and quirky nation, unexpected neighbors to Uruguayans who lackadaisically refer to them as los muchachos, “the boys.” When they are noticed, the reactions are largely positive. Ouerghi, the Tunisian, said people recognize him on the streets and say, in an amicable tone, “Oh, you’re from Guantánamo!”
Rather than continue with the interview, which seemed to interest Faraj much less than just the company did, he soon got distracted by pictures of a wedding party in Lebanon on our translator’s screensaver. “Mashallah, mashallah, aywah!” he exclaimed.
Najjar’s kitchen was crowded with knicknacks and felt, like Montevideo as a whole does, a mixture of cozy and vintage. She keeps a yellow-paged Christian prayer book in Arabic that her sister-in-law brought over from Lebanon, which the widow nowadays opens and sings in a warbly voice that evidences the pleasure she takes in hearing the language of the land she lived in for less than half the time she’s been in South America.
Faraj, in no rush to end the conversation with two strangers, even as the sky darkened in the small window next to us and nighttime came, began discussing his hopes to open his own business.
Najjar became intrigued with his proposal to start a butcher shop. A contact of hers might be able to help, she realized.
She called the contact to ask about connections who could perhaps get him a tax break to set up a new business. Her tone, while trying to help a terror suspect get back on his feet, was normal, casual, like the way a neighbor in this big village would ask to fill your maté cup.
“I’m here with one of the Guantánamo boys,” she began her call. Then, she launched into his business plan.